Tuesday, August 31, 2010


John had convinced me to take the train to Bukhara instead of a share taxi. And the LP had agreed: Comfortable aircraft type seating, a/c, sipping a refreshing drink as the irrigated fields and unirrigated desert slipped by. I went to the large, Soviet semi-futuristic train station and plopped down $10 for a first class ticket for the 11:55.

Lug my stuff down the stairs and then back up to Track 2. Then stand and wait in the hot sun. And wait. And wait. Fuming more and more at what an idiot I was not to just go get a share taxi. Finally the 'Sharq' express train arrived an hour late. I found my way to the assigned car.

It was divided up into creepy compartments. Mine had drawn shades and had two Uzbek men in undershirts wiping their eyes awake. No a/c and sweltering. I sat there in a corner, feeling and looking pretty grumpy.

I guess they could somehow sense it. After a little while the shade got opened. Then some questions in Russian about America. Then I was offered the seat by the window so that I could properly touristfy. Finally one of them opened the window so that it wasn't so sweltering. Fields and desert rolled by.

We pulled into the station around 4, two hours after I would have arrived via share taxi. And the station was still 15 km from Bukhara. I ignored all the pestering taxi drivers with their wildly inflated tourist prices and found one who gave me the real price. He dropped me off at Bukhara tourist central.

Which is Lyubi Haus, a shady square around a shady square pool dating back centuries. More modern were all the little open air poolside restaurants. A couple of hotel touts were actually well mannered and respectful, and directed me to the hotel I was looking for. Left at the small domed marketplace and about 400 meters down a dusty street lined with dusty brown houses.

Komil's B&B was in a tastefully upkept old Bokhara house, replete with wood carved rooms, tapesries, old wooden chests, etc. Also with a/c, a fridge, modern antique bathroom, and a tv where I could watch Uzbek music videos. (At least half of all programming on third world stations are music videos. Extremely cheap to broadcast.)

After a little relaxing I set out to find eats. A couple of people had noted how they had gotten violently ill here; David at Stantours (my Turkmen tour agent) had laughed and assured me that everyone gets violently ill in these parts. But after a km or so of walking I found 'La Bella Italia', about as upscale place as I could reasonably hope to find.

To show you how incredibly cheap Uzbekistan is: A meal of a decent, large potato and beet salad, a very large bowl of soup, a pretty large and pretty good pizza, and a 1.5 liter of fizzy water set me back $6.

Back to the Lyubi Haus to hang out a bit. Back to the room. Breakfast of crepes and figs in the morning. Then a late start on walking around town.

Samarkand has grand, 'modernized' monuments . set down in the middle of a pleasant, though active, city. Bukhara has smaller, more numerous, but nonetheless still pretty damn exotic arcades and medressas in a kind of deliberately preserved 'old town' atmosphere. Since I knew beforehand that I wasn't stumbling upon an undiscovered city, the quasi 19th century atmosphere was fine by me.

Bukhara had been one of the most important Silk Road cities for around 1000 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Emir of Bukhara controlled most of Central Asia. Then the Russians took over. Then the Bolsheviks. Who created 'Uzbeks' and 'Uzbekistan' from a bunch of people who considered themselves Turks or Persians.

But before all that, in around 1100, some Khorezms built this 200 foot high massive Kalon Tower that I was now staring at. Very alien looking architecturally, but at the same time very amazing aesthetically. Apparently Jenghiz Khan was so blown away by it that this was the one thing in Central Asia that he didn't level to the ground. The rest of the 'square' was occupied by two large medressas a la the Registan, though not quite the scale. Still the effect was stunning. And I would have stayed longer if not for the heat--my thermometer would top out at 106.

A little further on was The Ark, which isn't an ark at all, but the remains of the fortress/castle formerly occupied by the Emir. Only parts of the walls and buildings remained, since the Bolsheviks had bombed it to hell in 1920. (They also bombed that tower, but, nice guys that they were, they then repaired it.) Walk up the ramp, pay my entrance fee, walk up some more in the hot sun and walk through a couple of small museums.

Then back out to circumnavigate the thing in the even hotter sun. Stop to visit the dungeorn and see the infamous 20 foot deep 'bug pit' where a couple of famous British adventurers were kept for three years before being beheaded. Then back to the tower area and thr rest of old town Bukhara.

My allergies had been pretty bad back in Almaty. Since then they had been relatively slight. Including at Samarkand. But this morning within 3 minutes of leaving my a/c room I was consumed with violent sneezing fits. So all day I had been popping antihistamines like M&Ms (actually, I wouldn't eat that many M&Ms at once), and still keeping it barely at bay. So now I found myself an Uzbek pharmacy to buy even more Russian pills.

Back to the B&B for a specially prepared vegetarian Uzbek meal. It was okay, but there wasn't that much of it. I was glad that I had a hunk of high priced cheese stashed in the fridge.

Maureen is glad that there is Skype. Now when I sit down and eat a meal we can chat away, me talking to a netbook and the netbook answering back.

On Wednesday I woke up bright and early and for the first time on the trip didn't feel any significant pain. Gloriously. I put my things on and headed on over to hang out with the Kalon Tower for a while in the early morning light. As I wandered back for breakfast I ran into the morning's first busload of French tourists. Seems like European tour companies book giant bus tours of Central Asia. And they all stop here in Bukhara.

And I am always amazed at how incredibly slobby all European tourists are. They invariably wear clothes that the fattest trailer park person in Missouri would be ashamed to be seen in. Since they would never dress like this at home, it's almost as if they are deliberately disrespecting the third world countries they go to. Especially since it's very important in these countries for middle class people to try and look decent.

Especially because today was their biggest holiday, National Uzbekistan Day. After breakfast I went back towards the tower, and then veered off towards Bukhara's main public park. Many, many Uzbeks were also headed there, the women all decked out in their finest tunic/dresses.

In the middle of the park was a small amusement park, complete with the oversized ferris wheel which virtually every settlement in the former Soviet Union seems to have. A ways off to the side was a 9th century mausaleum (okay, I guess Jenghiz Khan spared that too). And then in the back of the park were a few remains of the old city walls. It was still pretty neat to realize that here I was strolling around in a place that about 150 years ago was more exotic and remote than Timbuktu.

It wasn't so hot today. The temperature barely hit 103. I kept swigging water and goggling at the stone spires and domes. I didn't even mind all the French tourists. Actually, there wasn't much of anything happening on the streets. Even the vendors were giving up and closing up due to the holiday emptiness. I went back to my room, turned up the a/c, and blogged away.

In the evening I met up with the two young British chaps who would be joining me on my Turkmenistan tour and we had dinner together. I had already arranged for a car to take us the 100 km to the border tomorrow. Now I just had to pay my hotel bill, pack up, and inform Maureen that internet might not be happening for the next five days.

I'm all excited. Turkmenistan awaits.


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